(The Center Square) – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered Monday all public and private schools to close for the rest of the academic school year and increased restrictions on private businesses, effective at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Restaurants and bars will be required to cease all dine-in services and provide only take-out or delivery services. Establishments that are deemed recreational or entertainment, such as gyms, theaters and bowling alleys, will be required to close. All other nonessential businesses will be limited to a maximum of 10 patrons at a time, and essential businesses, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, will be required to adhere to social distancing and advanced sanitation measures.
These restrictions will be in effect for at least 30 days. Northam said guidance on what businesses fall into which categories will be posted on the commonwealth of Virginia’s website. He said the list will not be exhaustive and is subject to change.
Gatherings of 10 or more people will be banned. Northam said if police see more than 10 people congregating in a public place, such as a beach or a park, they are able to enforce this mandate. In such situations, he said police will inform people that the gathering is not permitted, but that he is not looking to have people arrested.
“We do not make these decisions lightly,” Northam said at a news conference. “Virginia is one of the country’s largest and most diverse states, but COVID-19 is serious and we must act.”
Northam said school closures are necessary to minimize the speed at which COVID-19 spreads.
The Virginia Department of Education will issue guidance on how local school divisions can ensure students learn the material they are meant to know by the end of the year, but specific decisions will be made by the local school divisions. He also said Virginia is working on waivers that will remove testing requirements for students who were on pace to graduate so that the pandemic does not affect their graduation.
Virginia has 1.2 million children under the age of 12, Northam said. With every child out of school, he called on local communities to establish public-private partnerships to provide necessary child care services. The Department of Social Services and the Department of Education will issue guidance on how to provide child care services for the children of essential workers.
The commonwealth had one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the country last month, but increased restrictions on businesses have caused unemployment filings to skyrocket. Although the new unemployment rate is not yet available, Northam said Virginia had 40,000 new unemployment filings last week, and he expects these numbers to keep rising. For perspective, the previous week averaged only 400 new unemployment filings per day.
Northam said the economic effects of the coronavirus will lead to an increase in fear and anxiety, which likely will lead to greater depression, alcoholism and domestic violence. He said that the sooner Virginia takes necessary steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, however, the sooner people will be able to get back to normal.
“We all need to take care of each other from afar because social distancing is the only path forward,” Northam said. “Our priority is to save lives. We have a health crisis, and we have an economic crisis, but the sooner that we can get this health crisis under control, the sooner our economy will recover. So I ask every Virginian to stand with me as we fight this battle.”
When asked whether he would go further in restricting people’s movements, Northam said he will continue to look at the data and make the best decisions for Virginians. Some states have issued stay-at-home restrictions that prohibit a person from leaving his or her house unless they have a viable reason.
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said in a statement that House Republicans will assist the governor any way they can.
"In the meantime, I encourage Gov. Northam and his team to continue their efforts to carefully balance the need to protect Virginians' health as well as their livelihoods," Gilbert said. "I hope we can use the time we have to get creative and aggressive in combating this virus and to remain thoughtful about the need for people to provide for their families as well."
As of Monday, the Virginia Department of Health reported 254 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Virginia, including six deaths.
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus. The disease has caused at least 499 deaths in the U.S., with more than 41,000 confirmed cases in the country. COVID-19 symptoms appear within two to 14 days after exposure and include fever, cough, runny nose and difficulty breathing.
Most people who have it develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually the elderly and those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.